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The Best That I Can RecallA Reminiscence
By Howard D. Mehlinger
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2009 Howard D. Mehlinger
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Impact of Time and Place
Life is a crapshoot. The game begins when a spermatozoon races his colleagues up a fallopian tube in search of a hospitable egg. Which spermatozoon wins the race and the quality of the egg that welcomes the winner has consequences. And then the environment enters the game. It sets conditions that first affect whether the ovum and, nine months later, the helpless infant will grow and prosper, or wither and die. While no one can predict whether heredity or environment will have the greater influence in any particular case, both are important. Many of the factors that will determine the eventual outcome, including individual motivation, are largely indiscernible and immeasurable. All the same, life is a craps game in which the dice are often loaded.
I was fortunate to be born where, when, and to whom I was. I was born an American and grew to maturity in small, Midwestern towns. Being born in 1931 provided unanticipated advantages. I was born too late to experience personally the horrors of World War II as a member of the armed forces, while profiting from the economic and population boom that followed the war. I was blessed with devoted parents, a loving brother, a supportiveextended family, many friends, inspiring mentors, and talented colleagues. While our family had modest resources, my father had a steady job, providing our family with economic security during an insecure period in American history. We were certainly not rich, but I never felt poor.
During the first 22 years of my life, I lived in two, small, Kansas towns: Marion and McPherson, the county seats of adjoining rural counties. For 22 years, I rarely strayed beyond those two communities and their rural environs.
Marion was the smaller of the two communities; it had approximately 2000 residents, about the same number as today. McPherson was five times larger; it had approximately 10,000 residents and boasted two small colleges. Marion's economy was based primarily on agriculture; McPherson had two oil refineries to support its economy in addition to agriculture. Clearly, McPherson was the wealthier of the two communities, but during the Great Depression, both communities prospered relatively when compared to many other American towns and cities.
I should have been born in Marion. It was where my parents lived, and where I was to live, until I was fifteen years old and we moved to McPherson. Nevertheless, according to my birth certificate, I was born in Hillsboro, Kansas on August 22, 1931, and I have the hospital receipt to confirm it.
Hillsboro, ten miles west of Marion, was a slightly smaller community than my home town. Hillsboro was known throughout Marion County as the site of the annual Marion County fair and the home of Tabor College. I don't know why my parents chose Salem Deaconess Hospital in Hillsboro over the Marion hospital. Perhaps it was because Salem Deaconess Hospital was a stand-alone, three-story brick structure staffed by Mennonite nurses, while the Marion hospital occupied the second floor of a building, which also housed a furniture store, and was staffed by more worldly nurses. Perhaps it was merely cheaper to give birth in Hillsboro. The total hospital charges for my delivery and a two-week hospitalization was $33.73. I think it was a bargain.
Being born in Hillsboro has caused me problems my entire life. Whenever I am asked to respond to the question - "place of birth?" - I have never been certain whether to respond "Hillsboro" or "Marion." After all, the only time I spent in Hillsboro was the first two weeks of my life when I was in the hospital with my mother, whereas I spent 15 years of my life in Marion. Where a person emerges from the womb seems less important to me than where he spends his youth. If I had been born en route to the Hillsboro hospital, I suppose that I would have to answer the birth question by stating I was born in an automobile somewhere between Marion and Hillsboro. In any case, I prefer to think that I was born in Marion, despite what my birth certificate claims.
For those who lived in Marion at that time, there was only one important question regarding place of residence, "Do you live on the hill or in the valley?" If you lived in the valley, you should expect to have flood water occasionally in your home; whereas if you lived on the hill, you were safely above the flood waters.
Two rivers ran through Marion: Mud Creek and the Cottonwood River. The Cottonwood was the larger stream; it flowed along the western edge of town. Mud Creek, which was probably a branch of the Cottonwood, sliced through the center of town. Neither the Creek nor the River carried much water during most of the year; indeed, it would have been easy for an adult to walk across either stream bed except following a heavy rainfall. However, whenever Marion County had a big downpour, Marion residents prepared for the inevitable flood.
One night, our family was watching a movie at the Kaw Theater, the only movie theater in Marion. Suddenly the film stopped, the house lights came on, and the manager announced that there had been a huge rainstorm upstream, and Marion was due for a flash flood. Everyone in the theater left quickly to prepare for rising water. Because we lived on the hill, our preparation was relatively easy. However, for my father who worked in the valley, preparation for the flood meant going to his job site and moving all office supplies, furniture, merchandise, and vehicles beyond the reach of flood waters.
Floods provided an exciting interruption in my otherwise routine existence. I can particularly recall the night that my dad invited me to spend the entire night with him at "the plant," the name he used to refer to his workplace, to help prepare for the flood, and to watch as the flood waters crept into the building. For a young boy, what could be more fun than striding down the center of Main Street, devoid of traffic and covered with water, and splashing around the floor of "the plant" in overshoes? Incidentally, young Marion boys and girls are denied this experience today as the US Army Corp of Engineers has dammed the Cottonwood River a few miles from Marion in order to prevent such floods. Some of the reservoir that was created by the dam now covers my grandfather's farm, the place where my mother spent her youth.
We lived at 310 North Cedar Street in a small bungalow, painted yellow with white trim. The lot was narrow, less than 50 feet wide. Our house had five rooms and no hallways. When entering the house from the front porch, one stepped directly into the living room. A dining room was immediately to the left of the entrance; a kitchen adjoined the dining room. My bedroom could be entered in three places: from the living room, from the kitchen, and from the bedroom used by my parents. The bathroom contained only a tub and a toilet. There was also a rear entrance to the house through a small, enclosed back porch which served mainly as a place to store winter boots and coats.
The house had running water, but none of it was hot. In order to have a hot bath, one had to begin by boiling a kettle of water on the stove and adding the hot water to the cold water that entered the tub from the tub faucet. My father shaved at the kitchen sink.
During the first six years of my life, I had a bedroom to myself. After my brother, Robert (Bob), was born on October 13, 1937, we shared a bedroom as well as a double bed until I married at age 21 and left my parents' home permanently. My Marion bedroom, like all of the other rooms in the house, was small. It contained a double bed, a small bedside table and a cardboard, stand-alone closet. There was no place in the room to read or to sit except on the bed. When it became clear that I needed a place to do my school work, my dad built a small desk and placed it in the corner of the dining room. (I still have the set of drawers that anchored the right side of that homemade desk.)
At first, the house was heated by a pot-bellied iron stove placed in the dining room; later, about the time Bob was born, my parents replaced the stove with a natural gas floor furnace, set in the floor between the dining room and the living room. To prevent my baby brother from crawling on top of the furnace and burning himself, my parents erected a little fence surrounding the floor furnace. This furnace was able to warm the living room and dining room, but the bedrooms were often cold on winter days.
Our property also contained some other buildings. One was a small garage, large enough to hold our 1934 Ford sedan; another was the washhouse where my mother washed clothes each Monday before drying them on clotheslines in the backyard. Another shed served as my father's workshop; it contained all of his tools, nails, bolts, screws and all of the other paraphernalia that distinguishes male workshops. The final shed was a chicken house that was later transformed into a playhouse for me and my brother.
My parents raised a small flock of chickens before I was old enough for grade school. I remember that I once had a pet chicken and was very distressed when my pet appeared as the main course for our Sunday dinner. I can also retrieve the image of my mother wringing chickens' necks or chopping off their heads with an axe, and then plunging the flopping, headless chickens into a bucket of boiling water before plucking their soaked feathers. After my parents stopped raising chickens, that portion of the back yard where the chickens once grazed was converted into a playground covered with Bermuda grass. The chicken house became my play house, which I furnished with boxes and discarded furniture, after first cleaning out the chicken manure and sweeping the dirt floor.
We lived at the northern end of Cedar Street, a street constructed of red bricks that stretched north and south for seven or eight blocks. The bricks stopped at the northern end of our block, and Cedar Street became a gravel road, signaling the automobile driver that he had left the city and was now in the country. My paternal grandparents lived only two blocks south of us in the 100 block of North Cedar Street; they shared a duplex with my father's sister and her family. My maternal grandparents lived in the 100 block of South Cedar Street. While my two sets of grandparents lived only one block apart, I don't recall that they ever visited one another. My maternal and paternal grandparents are now buried in separate plots in the Marion County Cemetery, no more that 100 feet apart, possibly the closest they ever came together. There is undoubtedly a story that would explain this absence of social interaction, but I do not know it.
We lived on the east side of the 300 block of North Cedar Street. Our neighbor immediately to the south was the Griggs family. To the north of us were three homes. The one adjacent to ours on the north side was a very small house, painted red, where my parents first lived following their marriage and before I was born. Although I do not remember ever being inside the house, I think it probably had only one bedroom and no indoor toilet, at least I remember that it had an "outhouse." The next house north was occupied by an elderly woman whom we rarely saw; my young friends and I were confident the house was haunted. The house on the north end of the block was the Nelson house; Mr. Nelson was the president of a local bank. The Nelson family had two boys, Wayne and Gene, who were several years older than I. They rarely paid attention to me, but for many years I tried to mimic Gene in every possible way, even attempting to walk and speak like him. Five houses were across the street. The Merrill family lived on the southwest corner, opposite the Griggs house. Gail Merrill, the father, owned the local laundry and dry cleaner business. His son, Max, was my best friend; Max's sister, Carolyn, was the same age as my brother. The house adjacent to the Merrill house was occupied by an elderly man who committed suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot while we were living on Cedar Street. The house immediately north of the suicide victim was a rental home that changed residents from time to time. The next home to the north was owned by Ira Newcomer and his wife; he owned the Ford dealership in Marion. Ira's sister was one of my junior high teachers; his son, Johnny, was about two years younger than I. The Newcomers also owned a vacant lot adjacent to their home where we often played football. Johnny owned a Shetland pony that sometimes grazed on that lot. There was another house on the northwest corner of the 300 block of North Cedar Street, but I remember nothing about the people who lived in that home.
What I find remarkable, reflecting on where I lived, is the socio-economic mix of the neighborhood. Our block contained a bank president and two business owners along with retirees and various members of the working poor which included the Mehlinger family. We played together and went to school and church together without being conscious of membership in different social classes. The Merrill, Nelson, and Newcomer families belonged to the Marion Country Club; the Mehlinger family did not. Beyond that fact, I was unaware of class differences.
The reader will note that I did not mention any racial or ethnic variety in the neighborhood. So far as I know there were no African-American families living in Marion, and I remember only one Latino family. The only African-American I ever saw in Marion was Mr. King, the trash man who drove his horse and wagon down our alley from time to time to pick up trash and garbage. For me, he was a curiosity, not someone I feared. Mr. King would permit me to stroke his horse and occasionally ride along for a few paces, seated beside him on the seat of his stinky, garbage-laden, fly-beckoning wagon, while gripping the reins to a horse wholly incapable of moving faster than a slow walk.
The "alley" behind our home was nothing more than an unpaved strip of right of way that allowed service vehicles access to our home. On the opposite side of the alley was a fenced field that occasionally contained cattle. It was also where my father cultivated potatoes from time to time. I remember playing football in that field once and falling into fresh cow dung. I did not play there again.
Fortunately, I did not need the pasture behind our home to find a place to play. While our backyard was small, it was well-equipped to entertain a young boy. I had a swing, supported by iron poles that were anchored into the ground with cement. A favorite game on the swing was to see how far we could leap from the swing after it had reached a desirable arc. (This game could be used as a metaphor for my later professional life.) I had a sand box where I played with various toy cars, trucks, and farm equipment; it had to be refreshed from time to time because the neighbor's cat played there also.
Using tools from my father's workshop, I produced many of my toys: converting orange crates into race cars or airplanes, making swords from lathes, and fashioning rubber guns from scrap wood, clothes pins, and strips of rubber cut from worn out inner tubes. My father also nailed a backboard and basketball goal to the tree near the alley. This is where I perfected my "set shot," a good shot in a game of "horse" but a poor shot in a basketball game because the person guarding me never let me get "set." I suppose that I might have been a good free throw shooter in high school, if I had been allowed to play long enough to be fouled.
Sidewalks were important at that time because that was where adults walked and children rode their tricycles and scooters, pulled their wagons and barreled along on their roller skates. When I was very young, I was not permitted to cross the street without an adult observing my crossing. Thus, my ability to explore the world on wheels was limited to the sidewalk on our side of the street, essentially the sidewalk from our doorstep south to the south corner of our block as there was no sidewalk north of our house.
Excerpted from The Best That I Can Recall by Howard D. Mehlinger Copyright © 2009 by Howard D. Mehlinger. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Impact of Time and Place....................3
Chapter 2: My Immediate Family....................21
Chapter 3: My Extended Family....................44
Chapter 4: School and College....................59
Chapter 5: Friends....................73
Chapter 6: Athletics....................86
Chapter 7: Jobs....................99
Chapter 8: Courtship and Marriage....................112
Chapter 9: My Introduction to Lawrence High School....................127
Chapter 10: Teaching at Lawrence High School....................143
Chapter 11: Coaching at Lawrence High School....................163
Chapter 12: A Few Recollections of Family Life in Lawrence....................178
Chapter 13: Earning a PhD in Lawrence....................197
Chapter 14: Project Social Studies in Pittsburgh....................209
Chapter 15: NCA Foreign Relations Project in Chicago....................225
Chapter 16: Inter-University Committee on Travel Grants....................241
Chapter 17: High School Curriculum Center in Government....................262
Chapter 18: Social Studies Development Center....................282
Chapter 19: School of Education....................298
Chapter 20: Center for Excellence in Education....................339
Chapter 21: Foreign Entanglements....................372
Chapter 22: The Mehlinger Family in Indiana....................425
Chapter 23: Continuing to be aProfessional....................449
Chapter 24: In Sickness and in Health....................462
Chapter 25: Reflections on a Life....................481